French presidential election – An emerging left challenge

    The first round of the French presidential election will be held on 22 April. The UK mass media has concentrated its coverage on the conservative candidate and incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, his main opponent – the social democrat François Hollande – and the far-right outsider, Marine Le Pen of the National Front. However, the radical Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who opposes the government’s austerity measures, is gaining ground as Cedric Gerome reports.

    In November of last year, a poll by the newspaper ‘Le Point’ stated that 83% of the French population think the politicians do not care about them, 69% think they are ‘rather corrupt’, and 60% think that the functioning of French democracy is ‘not satisfying’.

    France could rapidly become the political centrepiece of Europe. Although forecasts indicate a certain economic growth for this year, the unemployment rate is still expected to climb. Household consumption continues to nosedive, and the French banking sector remains substantially exposed to the debt of the crisis-ridden ‘peripheral’ economies.

    The social class divide within French society has widened considerably during the deeply unpopular presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy; which has been marked by massive tax breaks for the rich, a full frontal attack on pension rights, a public sector jobs massacre, and the closure of around 900 factories within the last three years.

    Meanwhile the profits of French multinationals and executive bosses’ pay have broken new records. The next Republic’s president, in any case, will face increasing pressures from the financial markets to push on with bitter structural austerity recipes. All these factors are preparing the ground for social convulsions on an unprecedented scale.

    Recent killings

    The recent shootings in the south of the country, with the murder of three children and a teacher outside their Jewish school in Toulouse and the killing of three paratroopers in Montauban by a young man of Algerian origin, have given an unexpected turn to the presidential campaign, with all establishment candidates cynically exploiting this tragedy for their own electoral purposes.

    This includes the far-right National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen – daughter of the notoriously anti-Semitic Jean-Marie Le Pen – posing as the defender of France’s Christian and Jewish communities and arguing for a war against ‘Islamist extremism’.

    Sarkozy hypocritically argues for ‘national unity’, after having used blatant racist provocations as part of his presidency (notably his anti-Roma measures of last year or, more recently, his polemics against Halal meat).

    While surveys show clearly that unemployment, pensions, housing shortages and wages are voters’ main concerns; this new, provoked climate of fear is a convenient way for Sarkozy to shift the debate towards ‘law-and-order’ issues, pushing the major concerns of the majority of the population into the background.

    Furthermore, proposals for new anti-terrorist legislation have been put forward. If implemented, the broad definition of these measures opens the door to crack down on all oppositionist currents in society.

    One poll taken after the shootings gives Sarkozy 30% and the Socialist Party (PS) candidate François Hollande 28% for the first round, taking place on 22 April.

    However, in the projections for the second round (on 6 May), Sarkozy remains far behind. Indeed, hatred at the ‘president of the rich’ is embedded in the minds of many working class people. In early February, only 12% of manual workers declared they would vote for him.

    The fact, though improbable but not impossible, that he could still win the elections, says a lot about the inconsistency and scepticism which surrounds the campaign of his main challenger. It also reflects the profound general volatility in the country.

    The deep unpopularity of the French political elite offers the ‘anti-establishment’ FN a fertile ground to develop among the most neglected sections of the population. But significantly, even Le Pen has had to put more emphasis at criticising the banks and the financial system, targeting, as she says, “the law of the banks as well as the law of the gangs”.

    This shows that the economic crisis has contributed to polarising the electoral landscape in a sharper way than previous elections in the country’s recent history. To the extent that in recent months the impression was given that suddenly all politicians were ‘re-discovering’ the existence of the industrial working class and the factories.

    It is within such a context that François Hollande, presenting himself as the candidate of “real change”, came out with a few electoral proposals that try to surf the wave of hatred of the super wealthy, notably through a 75% tax on millionaires.

    This has however nothing to do with a serious commitment to reverse the capitalist policies of the right wing, as Hollande’s recent visit to London to reassure City bankers of his pro-market view clearly illustrates.

    If Hollande benefits from a certain electoral support, it is mainly because of the desire by large sections of workers, young people and poor suburbs inhabitants to ‘exorcise’ the nightmare of the past ten years of right-wing UMP (Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement) rule – made up of lies, contempt, corruption and authoritarianism.

    The sharp rise, in the recent weeks, of electoral support for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the Left Front (an electoral alliance between the French Communist Party and the smaller Left Party) is highly significant.

    Electoral support

    A recent opinion poll gives Mélenchon 14%, becoming the ‘third candidate’ in these elections, and even eclipsing Marine Le Pen (who he ridiculed in a TV debate by displaying the pro-rich character of the FN’s programme).

    Despite the crisis faced by the New Anti-Capitalist (NPA) of Olivier Besancenot – whose popularity and membership have dropped dramatically because of the false methods of its leadership – the search for a radical voice that can express working class grievances against the rich elite and their system remains more than ever the order of the day.

    Mélenchon’s slogan “take the power” appeals to all those who are enraged at the diktat of the banks and the markets over their lives.

    His rhetorical skills, his references to France’s revolutionary history, the success of his well-attended meetings and of his recent call to demonstrate and occupy the Bastille square in Paris – when tens of thousands of people rallied – all have contributed to create a real dynamic behind his campaign.

    Although the programme of Mélenchon remains essentially limited to the idea of reforming the existing institutions, it nevertheless offers a platform on which future mass mobilisations can be built, and opens up, once again, the debate on the necessity for a new mass party to the left of the PS, and for a socialist alternative to the capitalist system.